Abortion and "species membership"

Now up on our homepage is Robert Vischer's report on last weekend's "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words" conference at Princeton University. (The conference title came from President Obama's speech last year at Notre Dame.) Vischer observes that there now seems to be more fear of compromise on the prochoice side of the abortion debate than on the prolife side:

[W]hile both the prolife and the prochoice camps view each other with a significant amount of fear, theres far greater suspicion on the prochoice side. At one level, that is understandable. After all, the status quo essentially permits abortion on demand throughout pregnancy, provided the mothers health (broadly construed) is at risk. If common ground between prochoice and prolife advocates is to be implemented legally, the move will likely be toward the prolife side of the ledger. Given that the status quo largely reflects the prochoice perspective, more than one prochoice participant expressed exasperation along the lines of Why are we even here? What do we stand to gain? Even one of the organizers (Kissling) expressed pessimism in her closing remarks, concluding that she does not discern much in the way of common ground between the two camps.At another level, however, fear gives the appearance that the two sides are even farther apart than they are. One participant expressed concern that, if Catholics win on the abortion issue, theyll try to outlaw birth control too. Another speaker explained that opposition to abortion and birth control are all part of the same agenda. As Helen Alvar helpfully pointed out, given the low percentage of Catholics who support the churchs teaching on birth control, it is a stretch to insist that opposition to birth control is the driving force behind opposition to abortion.

Public Discoursehas posted the remarks of John Finnis, who participated in a discussion with Peter Singer and Margaret Little about the moral status of the fetus.According to Finnis, equal moral status belongs to all human beings because of the kind of creatures we are from the moment of conception on: creatures with the "radical capacity" for rationality -- a capacitywhose development is gradual but also self-directed:

The early human embryo has the radical capacity to think and laugh and pun; all it (he or she) needs is time and nourishment, no more: the actual and active second-order or radical capacity, written into its molecular and cellular constitution, to develop first-order, promptly usable capacities such as to learn a language here and now.

For Singer, the fact that our capacities develop gradually means that our moral status also develops gradually, emerging as we become aware of ourselves and able to imagine and value our own futures. Singerhimself pointed outthat this position entails conclusions that many prochoicers would be uncomfortable with: as that a newborn has no more of a "right to life" than a late-term fetus does. Finnis made the same point, somewhat more forcefully:

The last time I had the opportunity of discoursing on todays topic was at the American Political Science Association, in 2000, in a debate with the Rawlsian political philosopher Jeffrey Reiman. Reiman is a liberal, but he too, like Peter Singer, doesnt believe in human equality. Peter must speak for himself, but in his publications around 2000 he agrees, I think, with Reiman that birth has little or no real moral significance. Reimans position is clear enough: the baby has no more rights, is no more entitled to respect, in the minutes or hours or days, or weeks, after birth than in the minutes or hours or days, or weeks, before birth. So far he and Peter agree. But then they split; for Reiman the child doesnt acquire the equal moral status of having rights of its own for several years, when it has started to consciously care about the continuation of its lifewhereas for Peter the moral status of equality and right to life is to be affirmed (Im not sure why) a month after birth. (In the debate following this presentation, Singer made clear that his one month proposal dates back to 1984 and was intended just as a pragmatic legislative line, and that his basic and present view approximates to Reimans.)So, on Reimans view (and I suppose Peters), if there is to be a law against infanticide from birth, it certainly doesnt rest on the moral rights, or moral status, of the young infantit has nonebut only on the feelings and dispositions of adults. And Reiman is keen to add this: since the unborn child, like the born child for quite a while, has no right to life, the mothers right to an abortion is not a right simply to be relieved of the presence of what is growing in her body, but a right to ensure that it is killed, whether or not it was delivered or expelled alive.

In responding to Finnis's remarks, Singerargued that it can't be justmembership inthe humanspecies that gives us our moral status. If there is such a person as E.T., surely wewould agree that he too has a right to life, because he too is a rational creature. Here Finnis agreed: if it could be demonstrated that some nonhumancreaturesarerational, then we'd be obliged to acknowledge their right not to be killed by us. So itis notjust a matter of "species membership."But then Singer pointed out that not all human lives will, given only time and nourishment, develop into actively rational creatures. Some embryos stop developing at an early stage because ofa genetic defect. Then there are those fully developed human beingswho, because of injury or illness, will never again be conscious, much less rational. Finnismight have replied that even such human beings belong to a species that is naturally rational -- that's thekind of creature they are, even if some accident or abnormalitydestroys (or prevents) their own capacity for rationality -- but he didn't quite. In any case, species membership does seem to be at the heart of the natural-law prolife argument, even if, theoretically, ours isn't the only species to which that argument could be applied.Someone at the conference asked Singer ifhethought there wasany chance hemight bewrong about the nonpersonhood of prenatal human lives. He acknowledged that there was (a very remote chance), but said he found it odd that so fewof thosewho advancea why-not-be-safe argumentin the case of abortionapplythe same kind of reasoningto questions aboutanimal rights. If there's even a remote chance that someother animalsmight be rational creatures, shouldn't we play it safe and all become vegetarians, like Singer?

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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